Celebrate 2022: Niskayuna resident’s whimsical village — a 29-year labor of love — finds balance

Jim Mancuso of Niskayuna and his sprawling “Noeltown” display
Jim Mancuso of Niskayuna and his sprawling “Noeltown” display

NISKAYUNA – Jim Mancuso splits his time between a home in Niskayuna and one in Noeltown.

The Noeltown residence is a bit trickier to find.

To get there, head down to the basement rec room in Mancuso’s Niskayuna abode and turn left at the bottom of the stairs. From there, look left and you can’t miss Noeltown, snow-covered and silent, sprawled beneath a night sky sparkling with stars.

Hop into one of the tiny, vintage convertibles idling on St. Nicholas Avenue beside Christmas Park. Then, follow the North Star past the Tudor Revival homes and the downtown. At the intersection beyond Gloria Street, take a left onto Noel Avenue. Just past the cathedral on your right, you’ll see Mancuso’s home. It’s the one with the cats in the yard.

Noeltown’s roots stretch back to a dirt mound beneath backyard pine trees at Mancuso’s childhood home in Portville, a village about two hours south of Buffalo.

“I had little wooden houses and toy cars, and the neighborhood kids and I played in that town all summer long,” he reminisced.

Memories of that whimsical community were reawakened in 1991 when Mancuso’s wife, Kathleen, bought him a collectible, ceramic, old-style, urban Victorian house. Three years later he bought a set of four more ceramic structures to set up alongside it. The new ensemble came with a street clock, snow-speckled conifers and small, ceramic citizens.

“That gave me the idea that I could make this into something,” he recalled.

And so he did.

Noeltown’s history is archived in Mancuso’s Christmas journal, intermixed with photos of Christmases past and lists of his children’s Christmas presents. A retired college librarian, he keeps the facts in meticulous order, chronicled on page after neatly written page.

He flipped through the journal to find a photo of the town as it looked in the early days — tiny and sweet — a chapel, a gazebo, homes with inviting light shining from their windows.

A few years after he purchased the initial set of houses, Noeltown grew to include a neighborhood of English Tudor homes complete with carolers, musicians and a majestic Christmas tree.

Mancuso began heading to local department stores every Dec. 26, hunting for post-holiday ceramic-house bargains.

“I would just come home with a whole pile of them, so each year I was able to add onto the village more and more,” he recalled.

The town’s expansion was also made possible by the generosity of loved ones who, when they passed away, left Mancuso their ceramic village components.

As Noeltown grew, managing it became labor intensive. Every January, Mancuso spent an entire day disassembling it, packing each house carefully back into its own box. That all changed in 2014 when his youngest child went off to college. Recognizing a chance to capitalize on a now-unused parcel of real estate, Mancuso claimed eminent domain in the rec room. Noeltown became a permanent fixture there. Once the village could stay put year-round, a thoughtfully planned layout began to take shape.

“What I decided to do was create a village that would be that delicate tension between idealism and realism, so that it would be so ideal as to be a beauty to the eyes but it wouldn’t look fake. It wouldn’t look contrived,” he explained.

Front and center in Noeltown is a section that harkens back to the early 1800s, featuring modest homes and a colonial church.

More: Celebrate 2022 – Traditions, Food, Gifts, Memories

“As the village grows it goes through the architectural eras, so it goes this way, into Tudor Revival,” Mancuso narrated. “And as it goes up the hill, we go through the English section.”

He pointed out ornate Victorian buildings and a downtown complete with a fire station, library, hardware store and theater. There’s even a Gower Drugs store, just like the one in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Several slick convertibles from the 1950s and ‘60s — with vibrant colors and tops down — look delightfully out of place parked in front of Noeltown’s 19th-century hardware store.

“I should get little pieces of wood and make them look like lumber, put them in the back of the convertibles,” Mancuso mused.

He doesn’t sweat the fact that the vehicles are of an incorrect era.

“I bought them all at once. I was in a gift shop and it was summertime,” Mancuso said, recounting a multiyear search for cars that match the scale of the village.

A snowball’s throw from downtown is a central square. And there’s a small park near a church, where congregants can host a winter carnival, complete with a bonfire, sleigh rides and hot chocolate.

“People should be using their imaginations, thinking of those things when they’re looking at the village,” Mancuso said. “It’s not just a dumped collection of houses.”

The tour continues up St. Nicholas Avenue past Victoria Street and Bethlehem Street.

“Now the village has prospered. It’s about the 1880s, and you can see the people built their beautiful Victorian homes going up the hill,” Mancuso said, pointing out elaborate houses with warmly lit windows. “That’s what you’d do in a New England village. The richer people would build up the hill.”

One section of Noeltown is modeled after an English Tudor village he and his wife visited in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

“I put my four favorite things to buy there: toys, clocks, Christmas things and books,” he said, eyes on a court full of quaint shops.

The Noeltown residence Mancuso chose as his own is just a short convertible ride from there — a grand, Second Empire-style home with a great view.

More: Celebrate 2022 – Traditions, Food, Gifts, Memories

“Can you see that there are cats on the lawn there?” he asked. “Those were Christmas presents from my daughter, who bought them for the village because she and I both love cats and she wanted there to be cats running around my front lawn.”

A few blocks from where the cats frolic is Manger Square, the most modern part of Noeltown, complete with a gazebo, church and homes built in the 1920s.

Winking down upon the town is a night sky that glitters with rhinestone stars arranged into the winter constellations. Mancuso pointed out Canis Major and Minor, Gemini, Taurus, the Big and Little Dipper.

“I knew that most people would be standing right here, so I wanted them to see Orion closest to them and then the very familiar dippers straight ahead,” he explained, surveying his creation.

The constellations are a new feature for the 2022 holiday season, along with two Victorian homes added in early November. With those in place, Mancuso has declared Noeltown complete — a feat 29 Christmas seasons in the making.

He described his masterpiece as a work of art that embodies everything he loves: architecture, astronomy, holidays, history and magic.

“If you give it structure and status and history and an organization and so forth, you have created art,” he explained. “And as a work of art, it can please the eye, it can please the soul, it can fire the imagination. And then lastly, it takes on magic.”

Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, Mancuso’s four young grandchildren get the go-ahead to venture to Noeltown to play. The fun continues until early January, when the town is blanketed with protective cloths until the following November.

“It is magic when they get to see it again,” he said, the thought of their excitement brightening his eyes. “They think there’s one in everybody’s basement.”

On Christmas Eve, when the Mancusos host their annual holiday party, Noeltown will be on display for all attendees to enjoy.

Mancuso said it’s a dream come true to finally have the town completed, but admitted he’s not entirely sure he wants it to be finished. He could still change his mind. There are several desirable building lots available on a nearby shelf topped with Charlie Brown Christmas wrapping paper.

Noeltown at a glance
Population: 86
Area: Approximately 85 square feet

  • 110 trees and bushes
  • 46 houses
  • 30 cars
  • 15 streets
  • 15 stores
  • 8 sleighs and sleds
  • 7 churches
  • 4 libraries and galleries
  • 3 restaurants
  • 3 parks
  • 1 pond
  • 1 lawyer’s office
  • 1 school
  • 1 fire station
  • 1 train station
  • 1 theater
  • 1 post office
  • 1 mill
  • 1 carriage house
  • 1 train

More: Celebrate 2022 – Traditions, Food, Gifts, Memories

Categories: Art, Celebrate 2022, Life and Arts, Your Niskayuna

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